By Emily Wight
In his new film Sixteen, writer and director Rob Brown uses the backdrop of murky grey London estates to draw a comparison between gang violence in the UK and conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), focusing in particular on how violence affects young people.
The film tells the story of Congolese teenager, Jumah, who has recently been adopted by a British nurse, Laura. He’s preoccupied and detached, and hates seeing the fighting in video games, but doesn’t show much hesitation when it comes to throwing punches himself. It’s clear he’s troubled, but he has a friend, and is embarking on a relationship with a girl from his school, Chloe. Things could go either way, until he’s swept up in a web of lies and blackmail when he witnesses a stabbing. As the drama unfolds, a parallel is made clear between Jumah and Josh, a schoolmate who is under the thumb of a gang leader.
At 80 minutes, Sixteen is the perfect length to tell the story of Jumah’s struggle to settle into the life of an everyday British teenager. Taking place over what must be just a couple of days, it’s unclear exactly how long he has been in the UK – though it’s mentioned at one point that he’s been at school for three weeks, and Laura laments how it took the adoption services a year to allow her to take care of him even after he arrived from the Congo.
Whatever the time constraint is doesn’t matter, however: both the script and Roger Jean Nsengiyumva’s outstanding performance as Jumah present a young man desperate to fight off the trauma of his past as a child soldier and embrace a new life. Nsengiyumva is a breakout star, convincingly displaying a huge range of emotions, from anger at others to self-hatred to devotion towards the pursuit of his hairdressing career – a following that comes from a tradition he grew up with.
Brown has drawn complex characters, and the supporting cast are also marvellous, particularly Rachael Sterling as Laura and Rosie Day as Chloe, a young girl who cares about Jumah but is at the same time completely afraid of him and how he has been shaped by abuse.
Part of the film’s success is that it doesn’t give too much away about Jumah’s past, but a criticism would be that we’re not told much about why Laura adopted Jumah when he had a mother alive in the DRC. This seems pretty unethical and thus diminishes sympathy for her character. But perhaps I’m being too picky: many would overlook this small detail and instead concentrate on her struggle as an adoptive mother to someone with such a troubled past.
The production of Sixteen is outstanding: the camera that follows Jumah around his estate and the stifling corridors of his school builds up a tense claustrophobia and the careful choice of music – in this case, lack of – presents us with a work of cinematic realism that complements the script and acting. This is a wonderful film that showcases a wide range of British talent.
Sixteen is on general release from Friday March 27th.